Rory McIlroy delivered the money shot Sunday as live golf returned to television for a skins game that revealed plenty of rust on the four PGA Tour players who participated but also raised more than $5 million for COVID-19 relief funds.
McIlroy and teammate Dustin Johnson, who had not won a skin since the sixth hole, had a chance to win the final six skins worth $1.1 million on the final hole at Seminole Golf Club in the TaylorMade Driving Relief exhibition. Both missed, and they returned to the par-3 17th for a closest-to-the-pin contest at the exclusive course in Juno Beach, Florida.
From a forward tee at 120 yards, Matthew Wolff was 18 feet below the hole. His partner, Rickie Fowler, missed the green. Johnson found a bunker. Down to the last shot, McIlroy — the four-time major champion from Northern Ireland is No. 1 in a World Golf Ranking that pressed pause on March 20 — barely stayed on the shelf left of the pin, measured at 13 feet.
"Air-five," McIlroy said, alluding to the social distancing in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The final carryover gave McIlroy and the fifth-ranked Johnson $1.85 million for the American Nurses Foundation. Fowler, who made seven birdies, and Wolff — both played college golf at Oklahoma State — made $1.15 million for the CDC Foundation.
"I'm proud to be part of an event to entertain people at home on a Sunday afternoon and to raise money for people who need it," McIlroy said as he played the 18th hole.
Wolff, the 21-year-old Californian with big game and plenty of swagger, earned $450,000 toward relief funds by having the longest drives on two par 5s — 356 yards on No. 2 and 368 yards on No. 14.
Fowler's seven birdies were worth $270,000 in a separate fund from Farmers Insurance, while McIlroy made four birdies in regulation worth $175,000 and Wolff had three birdies for $135,000. Johnson, whose time away from golf showed the most, had two birdies for $75,000.
PGA Tour Charities allowed for online donations during the telecast, raising more than $1 million. The donations will continue until Tuesday. When the exhibition ended, more than $5.5 million had been pledged, starting with the $3 million guarantee from UnitedHeath Group.
With caddies barred, players carried their own bags, and that was far from the only difference.
Television had a skeleton crew on the grounds — the play-by-play announcer and analysts were 200 miles away in St. Augustine, Florida, while host Mike Tirico was at his home office in Michigan. The match took longer than four hours, primarily because players were at times held in place to give the six TV cameras time to get in position on the next hole.
Mark Russell, the PGA Tour's vice president of rules and competition, was the only person who handled the flagsticks. Bunkers didn't need to be raked because they were the only match on the course, which closed for the summer last week.
"It was an awesome day," McIlroy said. "It was nice to get back on the golf course and get back to some sort of normalcy."
The players wore microphones, though the banter was limited and ended early.
Most of it came from McIlroy, who had to make a short par putt on the second hole for a push. He rolled it in and said to Wolff, "I think you forget I've won two FedEx Cups that total $25 million. That doesn't faze me, youngster." McIlroy turned 31 this month.
The 27th-ranked Fowler played the best golf and staked his side to the lead with four birdies in a six-hole stretch around the turn, including a 20-footer on No. 11 that was worth two skins at $200,000. He raised his finger, and McIlroy said, "Did you hear all those cheers?" There were no fans, of course, and fewer than 50 people were at Seminole. All were tested for the new coronavirus.
That was the start of golf's return.
The last live competition on TV was March 12, the first round of The Players Championship. It was canceled the next day, along with other tournaments on the schedule since then that were either scrapped or postponed.
Another exhibition is set for next Sunday, down the road at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, where Tiger Woods plays when home in Florida. NFL quarterbacks — one former, one current — will get involved when Woods and Peyton Manning face Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady in a match billed as "Champions for Charity" that will raise $10 million for COVID-19 relief efforts.
No fans or media will be present then, either.
The real show is set to return June 11 with the PGA Tour's Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. Tour officials have said fans will not be allowed at tournaments for at least a month, and perhaps longer depending on how it goes.
Players will have access to charter flights and a designated hotel, part of stringent regulations to return to play amid the pandemic.
President Trump weighs in
President Donald Trump's idea of golf getting back to normal is having thousands of fans who aren't wearing masks in attendance and "practically standing on top of each other."
Trump joined the NBC broadcast of Sunday's match at Seminole, and the PGA Tour's return at Colonial was one topic.
"After that, hopefully, it will be back," Trump said in his interview with Tirico. "We really want to see it back to normal so when we have all these thousands, tens of thousands of people going to your majors and going to golf tournaments, we want them to be having that same experience. We don't want them having to wear masks and be doing what we've been doing for the last number of months. Because that's not getting back to normal.
"We want to be back to normal where you have the big crowds, and they're practically standing on top of each other and they're enjoying themselves, not where they're worried. But in the meantime, they do the social distancing, and they practice that. And they've been doing really well. The country is ready to start moving forward."
Trump said he knows most of the PGA Tour players and has played with many of them. That includes McIlroy three years ago. McIlroy criticized Trump on the McKellar Journal podcast this past week for politicizing the pandemic and said he would not play golf with Trump again.
Tirico raised McIlroy's name as being among those who have played with the president and asked what such guests talk about on the golf course. The president didn't bite on McIlroy's recent comments.
"A lot of them are very political, actually," Trump said. "Some like my politics very much, and probably some don't. I guess the ones that don't, I don't get to see as much."